Fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment


Shabnam, 17, from Kabul: Photo Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Six Afghan women are training up to attend the 2012 London Olympics to represent their war-torn country – a fact which would have been imaginable in Taliban times, when all sport for all women was banned. Several are female boxers, who train in Kabul’s main stadium, where women used to be publicly executed for adultery. In such a short space of time the symbolism of the change of use for this building cannot be exaggerated.

But, let’s not get carried away. It’s still unusual for women to take part in sport, to compete internationally in sport – and a violent sport at that.  Many rural areas in particular do not allow women the opportunity to participate in sport, even since the overthrow of the Taliban. Women are often restricted by conforming to strict rules of purdah, which means they don’t leave their homes very often.

So, victories are to be celebrated and held up as examples. Afghanistan’s first female cricket team was also formed in January, training in a park with high walls where men are banned. They know if they train in public, even covered in headscarves, somebody will disturb them and try to stop them

And it’s interesting to read of older generations of women taking an active role in promoting the younger ones. 17-year-old Shafika’s mother was the one who encouraged her to get into boxing: “When I started boxing I felt myself free and comfortable and happy. In the name of Afghanistan, we should have some women boxing and get some medals.

“We want the Afghan flag to come up at all the medal ceremonies for women boxing.”

Other sports women are hoping to compete in at the Olympics include taekwondo and judo.

For women everywhere, let’s hope these competitors get through the qualifying stages and make it to London next year, and earn the right to take some pride in their country on a global stage, after years of persecution and war.


What motivates a female suicide bomber?

December 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

 What makes a man want to kill himself and as many others in the process? Religious extremism perhaps? Community pressure? The promise of a virgin-filled Paradise after death? The belief in a holy war?           

Getty Images: A mother of two from Gaza City makes a video statement for Hamas days before blowing herself up, killing four Israelis and wounding seven others.

And, if these are a few of the reasons – what are the motivations more specifically for a female suicide bomber?

On Saturday – Christmas Day – a female suicide bomber killed more than 40 people after detonating an explosives-laden vest in an aid distribution centre in North-western Pakistan
This is thought to be the first woman acting as a suicide bomber in Pakistan. The right wing press have had a field day with this story because the murderer was dressed in a burkha.

The Pakistani Taliban later claimed responsibility. It is thought to be a protest over the handling of the nearby border with Afghanistan by the Pakistani authorities.In the case of suicide bombing – the majority of which are committed by men, the very vast majority – the martyr is fueled by a belief in a holy war, and the honour of dying for this cause, and for the promise of better to come. It is a very male based ideology – 72 sumptuous virgins waiting to deliver “everlasting happiness”.

But the Taliban is no friend to women.

After all, if in Islam female sexuality is something to be respected – the Taliban take this ideology a step further to be something to be feared, repressed, punishable. Women are to cover their faces because “the face of woman is a source of corruption”. Under Taliban rules, women are not to be educated, and face public flogging and execution if they break their rules. So, affiliation with the Taliban appears on the face of it an unlikely motive for a female suicide bomber. And yet the bomber on Saturday is believed to have been acting for the Taliban. 

AP: The Christmas DAy Pakistan bombing

 In researching this post, the study “Female Suicide Bombers”by Debra D Zedalis starts with a rather suprising quote from Hiba, a mother of five- and a suicide bomber trainee.

“I have to tell the world that if they do not defend us, then we have to defend ourselves with the only thing we have, our bodies. Our bodies are the only fighting means at our disposal”

 This rings surprising sounds of Femen, the activist group based in the Ukraine, which argues that they have to use their bodies because it is all they have to protest with. This idea of physical-based protest, of women being rendered so powerless that their bodies are the only tool they have to protest does not sound particularly likely in this case, since suicide bombing is a tactic used predominantly by men.

Some reports suggest that the enforced female attire is the biggest help for women working with the Taliban – after all the shapeless burqa is a perfect hiding place and male police are forbidden to touch or search women. Incidentally, see this story on a father who killed his own daughter who he claimed had been joining a suicide mission with al-Qaeda.   

 Perhaps it’s wrong to try and seperate motivations between men and women taking such drastic actions. It does strike me as sadly ironic that allowing women to take part in such acts of protest could be seen a sign of rising status for women in the Arab world. Hamas, for example, issued a fatwa that women could participate in suicide missions – but has still banned women from smoking water pipes, or having their hair cut by male hairdressers, for example. 

Should we be celebrating the inclusion of women in extremist politics and actions as in some dark way a step forward for Islamic women?

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Positive talking from NATO in Afghanistan – but will they deliver?

October 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

RAWA: Afghan woman with children

Call me cynical if you will. Comments from the Secretary General of NATO that the organisation will only support a political deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban if it respects the constitutional rights of women  are brilliant.

 And it’s true that there has been progress in terms of female education since the Taliban were ousted from government, and it’s very encouraging to see women represented in parliament. The trend is edging in a very positive direction.

But Anders Fogh Rasmussen was making a speech to a conference which was talking about women and security in Afghanistan. So, one could point out that he was hardly likely to say anything else – of course NATO is against inequality for women! It’s unlikely any head of NATO would fancy his reception being warm if he stood up and said NATO couldn’t care less about women in the country.

 But what is needed is action, political pressure, and more awareness. This site, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, is very interesting – a recent report here from Sky is a good example of women’s lives. And generally rather depressing reading, although I suspect the women behind this site are wonderfully inspiring and brave.

Recent figures suggest 2300 girls and women commit suicide in the country each year, and a third are suffering with depression. The healthcare advisor to the Afghan President, Faiz Mohammad Kakkar, blamed the civil wars, forced marriages, rape, domestic violence and widespread family poverty as the main reasons for the high rates of mental illness.

Talking the talk is easy. I will wait and hope that things continue to get better for women in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

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